Back in June 2007 I had the privilege to work with three former ex-gay leaders as they prepared to issue public apologies concerning their roles in providing and promoting reparative therapy. At the LGBT community center in LA, I witnessed this historic public offering of regret. As co-founder of Beyond Ex-Gay and working in partnership with Soulforce, I believed the apologies would provide ex-gay survivors with meaningful words from some of the very people responsible for causing the harm.
Writing an apology often proves challenging. How difficult to admit wrong and particularly to name that wrong without justification or minimizing. As someone who spent 17 years immersed in various treatments designed to alter my sexual orientation (gay) and gender difference (fem), I felt relieved and released in part by the group apology and the individual statements of regret offered by Jeremy Marks, Darlene Bogle, and Michael Bussee. What struck me was the detail in which they described their wrongs as well as their genuine remorse. Previously all three had been working for years to undo the damage while contributing positively to LGBT lives, so their words were grounded in action.
This summer I received a remarkable e-mail from John Smid, the former director of Love in Action (LIA.) I attended this residential ex-gay program in Memphis, TN for two years at great cost to me and my family, both financially and psychologically. I had heard that John was reaching out to former clients, so I was not surprised he contacted me.
John said he would like to take a stab at making amends, and I agreed to read what he had learned since we last spoke in 2008. The apology he sent me, sounded sincere to me but incomplete. It lacked detail. It was written in the passive voice and repeated over and over the phrase, “I am sorry.” While I did not feel I could outright ignore John’s apology, I also could not honestly accept it as it was. So as an exercise for myself, I printed out John’s apology to me, read it closely, crossed out anything that sounded extraneous, wrote details in the margin, and began to play with language. (For instance, instead of the phrase, “I am sorry for…” I replaced it with “I acknowledge that…”)
I found the exercise useful to me, satisfying to consider words meaningful to me. Then I decided to take the unprecedented step of sending to John my version of his apology. I acknowledged to him how it must be difficult to question 22 years of work and conclude that it may have caused harm. I explained how I took the liberty to edit his original version and said, “This is an apology I believe I can accept. I do not know if it is one you are willing and able to give, but if nothing else, it served as a helpful exercise to me and you may find it useful as well.”
Below is the apology I fashioned from John’s first draft. I do not feel comfortable sharing his original, but it is similar to the public apology he issued in March of this year.
I understand that John is on a personal journey that includes questioning his beliefs, former work, and even his own identity. He also has had a very public role in providing and promoting ex-gay ministry. The program he oversaw was notorious for its shocking and abusive practices. Separating the personal from the public is important. I wish John the best in his life. I also recognize that history cannot be erased, and it does nothing to the strength of LGBTQ communities to overlook or minimize the wrongs against us. It also does not aid in the liberation of our oppressors to overlook or minimize painful past actions. In other words, writing an apology can prove challenging both to those giving and those hearing.
Using John Smid’s personal message to me, I composed an apology that is meaningful to me:
Peterson, I regret that through the teaching I offered at Love in Action (LIA,) through private conversations, in public forums, and in the media, I communicated directly and indirectly that lesbians and gays are sinful, dysfunctional, flawed, and inferior to heterosexuals.
At LIA my staff and I designed a program that used a drug and alcohol “addiction” model. Applying this addiction model to men and women who are gay, lesbian, bisexual,or transgender caused confusion, shame, and guilt. The model suggested that you and others were damaged goods and deceived. I now realize that the model I implemented focused on behavior modification. This focus was woefully ill-informed and unhelpful regarding gays. This model has caused harm to many people who came to us for help. In retrospect, I now see that the model was flawed. It relied on shame tactics and guilt-producing practices. I continued to turn a blind eye and deaf ear to the things I heard from those, like yourself, wounded by this model.
I regret designing, overseeing, and maintaining a program that brought confusion and pain, not only to you, but to many people through the years. I did not take the time to listen to you and others. I devalued your life experience and personal perspective.
I regret the flawed theology I taught and practiced. In suggesting that transformation would mean a change in sexual orientation, I brought further confusion into your life while you were at LIA. I taught that gays had wicked hearts. My theology and thinking
were wrong and negatively affected you and others under my care. I acknowledge the potential harm in teaching topics like “child development” to a hastily assembled group of people looking for informed answers. I have learned that this “one size fits all” approach caused confusion and guilt to participants at the Family and Friends Weekend.
Peterson, I harmed your parents through what my staff and I taught and communicated. I see now how much of what I said increased fear, shame, and guilt for parents who arrived to our program concerned for their children. As I look back today, I am grieved that I did not relieve the guilt and shame, rather I helped produce more through the meetings my staff and I facilitated. I now acknowledge that there is nothing that a parent does or does not do that creates a gay child. I regret that I taught or inferred this message and coerced parents into taking on inappropriate responsibility for their child’s orientation and gender differences and for insisting that there was something wrong with a gay orientation and in gender differences. I renounce these views and have ceased teaching this material to groups.
I now understand and acknowledge that my sexuality is unique to me. I have chosen to partner with Vileen, my wife, a partnership that works for me and for her. But for the vast majority of LIA participants, such a relationship would be unrealistic, and would likely cause pain and heartache for all parties involved. In my work, I never acknowledge the differences in people’s orientations and personalities. I never acknowledged the existence of bisexuals, who may successfully partner with someone of either sex. In my teaching and testimony, I insisted that a heterosexual marriage was superior to a union between two men or two women. I elevated heterosexuality and devalued the lives, relationships, and spirituality of lesbians gays.
Through the LIA program, my teaching, and program activities, I insisted that clients must adhere to traditional gender roles and society’s assumptions regarding how men and women express themselves through their appearance, dress, hobbies, jobs, and relationships. My teaching stifled individuality and authenticity. I was arrogant and assumed that I had all of the right answers. I acted as though I had a special line to God and somehow felt that I knew what God would or would not do. I wrongly defended myself when someone called me or my ministry legalistic. In arrogance, I responded to people who criticized me, my teaching, or LIA program practices.
While I cannot say that the 22 years as program director of LIA were a waste or that it was not productive to some in part, I am now aware, and I continue to grow in awareness, that much of my teachings, beliefs, and practices at LIA were wrong. As a result, I confused and wounded many people. Many, perhaps most, left LIA hopeless as a result of the services we provided under my supervision. I now understand and see that I was often more consumed with what I believed you had done that was wrong and sinful, and likely communicated that I was not interested in YOU as a person, or how you were feeling.
I regret my actions. I acknowledge my mistakes and harmful work.
Peterson, what can I do further to address the wrongs I have done? How can I demonstrate just how much I regret my actions and the consequences they brought to you and to others?